Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Buttonhole Stitch & Various Uses


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Buttonhole stitch (or blanket stitch) can be used a number of ways in hand embroidery. It is frequently used in cutwork, in free style embroidery, in needlepainting, in needle lace, in crewel work, and the list could go on!

Distinction: The stitch I’m talking about here is, according to some, properly called a “blanket stitch.” You see it frequently on the edges of thick blankets, especially those made out of fleece today. The proper buttonhole stitch has an extra little loop in it, so that a tiny knot is formed at the edge. When executed neatly, this stitch (called a “tailor’s buttonhole”) forms a tight row of knots on the edge, great for pieces that would take a lot of wear around the buttonhole stitching.

But for all practical purposes, in regular embroidery, it’s the blanket stitch that’s used as the buttonhole stitch. Here’s how you execute the buttonhole stitch, and some ways that the buttonhole stitch is frequently used in embroidery.

First of all, the stitch itself:

Buttonhole Stitch: When you use the buttonhole stitch, you want the rope-like edge created by the stitch to line the outside of whatever design you are doing. So if your border is on the base of your design, your stitches will be worked in the direction shown in the diagram on the left here. You begin at the base of the design, at A. Your needle comes up from the back of the fabric, and goes down at B. When you bring your needle back up at C, make sure the working thread is underneath your needle, as shown. You can space your stitches out, depending on the effect you want. If you’re planning on cutting around the area stitched (as you would with cutwork or with a scalloped edge), you would keep your stitches right next to each other. In other techniques, you can spread your stitches out to create a different “look” (for example, as a decorative edging in crazy quilting – see below). To finish, you anchor the thread by taking your needle down over the loop you formed when you came up in front of the needle at C. Basically, you’re just going to go down right next to C, and anchor your working thread.

Buttonhole Stitch used as decorative edges

So that’s the basic stitch. It’s relatively easy to work. You can change the direction of the stitch (placing the twisted edge, for example, at the top of the area you are covering) very easily. You just want to make sure that your needle is always brought up in front of your working thread.

There are several different ways that buttonhole stitch can be used. In cutwork, it’s used to create a firm edge so that excess fabric can be cut away. For example, if you wanted to stitch a scalloped design on the edge of a collar of a little girl’s dress, you would stitch buttonhole scallops, like the ones below. Then you would cut the excess fabric carefully away, leaving just the scalloped edge.

There are a couple things you want to achieve when you make buttonhole scallops – the correct angle on your stitches (the green lines mark the stitch direction), and a solid scallop (otherwise, you risk frayed fabric). In the image above, note that the scallops are padded with a rather thick layer of outline or stem stitch. The padding could actually be any stitches – plain old straight stitch will do fine. The scallops don’t have to be heavily padded, but it’s a good idea to supply some padding.

Above is an example of how buttonhole stitch could be used to edge a design in cutwork. In this example, the inside material has already been cut and turned back. This is normal to do when working with shapes made of straight lines. For this particular example, what has happened before the buttonhole stitch was begun is this: the shape (a rectangle) was marked on the fabric. Then, within the shape, the fabric was cut from corner to corner, like an X. The cut fabric was then turned under, and tacked down by a running stitch. The buttonhole stitch is being worked over the running stitch. When it is complete, the excess fabric on the back (from the turn-under) will be carefully cut away.

When working with curves and stronger designs, you would outline your edges with a running stitch. You wouldn’t cut any fabric away at first. Then you’d carefully and snuggly buttonhole the edge of the design, over your running stitches (which not only guide the stitcher, but also provide support along the edge). Once your buttonhole stitching is complete, you would very carefully cut away the excess fabric. Do this from the front of the fabric, so that you can see the prominent twisted edge on the buttonhole stitching. If you do it from the back, you risk snipping that edge.

Buttonhole Wheels or Eyelets: Here, the buttonhole stitch is being worked around in a circular shape. This is effective in white work, when creating eyelets (shapes that have the center cut away), and it is equally effective in surface embroidery for stitching little flowers and such. You can space your stitches farther apart for flowers and such, but with eyelets in cutwork, you want to keep them close. Below is another example of how buttonhole wheels can be used. The example below was taken from one of my student’s samplers.

Buttonhole Shading: You can also use the buttonhole stitch as a filling stitch. By changing the shade of your thread as you progress, you can achieve a nice “needle-painted” effect. However, the buttonhole stitch, because of that twisted, rope-like edge, will be slightly thicker than your typical long & short stitch. It also requires being worked in straight rows, whereas, in long & short stitch, there’s more flexibility. Notice in the diagram on the left that the stitch is being worked over a laid thread. This helps keep the “padding” more consistent, and also helps keep your rows nice and straight. When using the buttonhole stitch to fill an area like this, the effect is rather more stylized and formal. The finer the thread you use, the finer the the results.

Detached Buttonhole Filling: Common in needle lace, this filling technique requires working a base running stitches along the edge of your design. Before working the buttonhole filling, you run a laid thread through the running stitches from side to side. Then you work your buttonholes over this thread, without passing through the fabric. For the next row of stitches, you use the previous row as your base, and stitch through it. By laying a long thread from side to side just below each row of buttonholes, you allow yourself to go back to the left side of the area and work from left to right. It’s not required, though, that you do this – you can work each row of buttonholes back and forth, without laying anything but the initial thread. Your filled area will be anchored to the running stitches along the side (pass through them with your last buttonhole in a row), and, when you’re finished filling in the design, you can c
ut away the fabric behind if you wish. If you do this, it is recommended that you stitch the edge of the design either with overcast stitching, or with an buttonhole edge as shown above in the cutwork explanation.

And there you have some of the typical uses of the versatile buttonhole stitch. If you have any additional uses that you would like to see an explanation of, let me know!



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(11) Comments

  1. Buttonhole isn’t as easy as it looks. I have trouble with this stich, when I want to keep it tight at straight. When workign on linen, I found out that if your working on a straight thread line, you can pull just one thread out that’s parallel to your edge and work the stitches in the space left. Its the same idea as drawn thread without drawing as many threads. It keeps the stitches really even.

  2. Good idea, Tasha. Drawing a thread out on linen is a good way to guide stitches. This would have to be done on a pretty high-count linen, if you didn’t want it to show the same way that it would with drawn thread work, I think. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Hi, I’m very new at embroidery but I stumbled upon something called ‘the corded detached buttonhole stitch’. I saw an example of it in an embroidery and it looks very nice. I thought it looked a bit like the detached buttonhole filling but maybe I’m wrong?

  4. Hi Mary….

    can we have a video for all these methods??

    i m very much interested in learning these stitches…besides i actually went shopping for all the embroidery accessories just because i got inspired from ur “hollyhocks” project..i simply love the way the flowers have been made..n i wanted to make those flowers exactly that way…oh i m a beginner by the way!

    now i have all the accessories but i am stuck here because i m not able to learn this stitch! šŸ™

    plzzzzzzzzz post some videos Mary!!!

  5. Hi, Sana –

    Thanks for your enthusiastic comment!

    You’ll find the following buttonhole videos available on needle ‘n thread:

    Buttonhole Wheels
    Buttonhole stitch

    Once you know both of those stitches, you can do leaves and flowers (the hollyhocks are buttonhole wheels – sometimes, they have a rounded lump on four sides, sometimes, they’re just round), and any leaves done with buttonhole are buttonhole stitches worked close together, with the edge on the outside of the leaf and the spokes on the middle vein of the leaf.

    Buttonhole scallops are just regular buttonhole stitch worked along a scalloped line.

    Here’s the video link for Buttonhole filling:

    Buttonhole Filling Stitch Video

    Buttonhole filling can be worked open or closed.

    With the other variations, it’s just a matter of changing the length of the “spoke” of the buttonhole stitch, or the direction of the spoke.

    If you have any problems working a specific stitch and you want some pointers, feel free to contact me.

    Good luck!

  6. I love the videos. However, I am left handed and have struggled most of my life with watching someone teach and then find that I do everything backwards. Or try to do it as I see it and it ends up looking aweful, because I do it left handed and go in the right handed direction. I just get confused and frustrated. It would be very helpful if there was a video for left handed people. It seems we are the ones who always have to figure it out. I just usually end up giving up. I would really appreciate some help. thanks

  7. Mary no entiendo ingles ,pero los diseƱos los entiendo muy biennn
    linda es dificil para mi poder adquirir estos materiales ,,no se buscarlos
    pero soy una bordadora muy agradecida ,aprender en tu espacio no cuesta nada

  8. Wow, I searched for detached corded buttonhole stitch and was directed to this page. I understand the stitch from you description! I do not have a project in mind but when I do have a project requiring this stitch, I think I can do it–thank you so much, your descriptions are easily understood and your videos are awesome. Roxie in KS

  9. This tutorial on different creative uses of the button hole stitch was beneficial. I had ugly pre-fired porcelain baby dolls that were hard to clean and paint, so I recreated one in a type of Mardi Gras character and the other into a farm boy. Both required new outfits from scratch and using creative embroidery stitches to make the fabrics come alive.
    I have to learn to back the fabric with lining in order to hold the embroidery letters and small masks on the New Orleans Mardi Gras doll.
    The farm boy doll railroad type trousers will have animals and words referring to the character of the doll-which is my cousin from Nebraska. He used to ride the pigs and steers in shows for kids. Made us laugh and hopefully some child will enjoy him, for my cousin brought joy to us. And children like unusual dolls that make them feel special. Some kids in the library that need a little smile, seem to appreciate these dolls. I am stopping volunteer work in the library. Too old am I. Thanks for your website and ideas to make sewing as my grandmother loved (1891-1994). atk

  10. I’m trying to follow kit directions for a blanket stitch flower “Start each petal with a detached chain-do not anchor it- and then continue with blanket stitches.” The problem is that I can’t figure out how to work the blanket stitch to attach the chain loop to the fabric. Either the chain floats free underneath the blanket stitches or lies behind them depending on which side of the chain stitch the placement of the “C” step is.

    1. Hi, Sue – If the blanket stitch flower is a complete circle, you might want to follow my instructions for buttonhole wheels, here: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2006/11/buttonhole-wheels-video-tutorial.html They forego the use of the chain stitch for starting. If it’s not a complete wheel or circle – if, for example, there’s a detached chain in the middle and a blanket stitch to each side – then you would work the detached chain all the way through to coming up inside in the loop of the chain at the tip. Instead of anchoring the chain loop, you’ll step just slightly to either side of the loop, but keep tension on your working thread at the same time, pulling it forward up the detached chain loop, and use your thumb to hold thread so the tension remains. You want the loop catching snuggly around the working thread, and not loosening up. So, step to either the right or left of the tip of the detached chain (where it started) and take the needle and thread to the back, while still holding on to a small loop of working thread on the front. Come up inside that loop, on the outside design line of the floor, and then pull snuggly upwards, so the blanket stitch catches around the working thread, but not so tightly, that it reduces too much in size. Take a tiny stitch over the blanket stitch, to anchor it. If I have a chance, I’ll work up a photo tutorial. The key, really, is keeping tension on the working thread, to hold your stitches in place before you anchor them.

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